Walk into any mall in America, and you’ll be sure to see styles marketed as “Native American” or “tribal.” It’s worth noting that most of the models used to advertise these styles are white. Recently, the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for selling panties and flasks decorated with a “Navajo” pattern, and Victoria’s Secret was pressured into issuing an apology for the headdress featured on their catwalk. These looks, it would seem, have no real connection to the peoples whose styles they appropriate, but rather are meant to evoke nostalgia for a rustic, romantic “Wild Wild West” that never existed—outside of Hollywood, at least.
Earlier this year, 21-year-old Kelly Holmes, who grew up on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, launched Native Max, a magazine that focuses on Native American fashion. The magazine aims to avoid any of the stereotypes of Native American style typical of the industry and is entirely Native-run, featuring only Native models and looks designed by Native artists. Holmes, who was bullied for being “different” when she moved to Denver from her reservation, was inspired to start Native Max when she experienced difficulty pursuing her passion—modeling—because gigs for Native Americans were relatively scarce and selective. “Natives are kind of invisible in this country, let alone in what we think is fashionable,” she says, pointing out that this systematic “forgetting” of the people who lived here way before the rest of us is a pervasive problem in America—one that extends even into often-trivialized areas of our society, such as fashion.
As the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen said, “Fashion can be really racist, looking at the clothes of other cultures as costumes.” Indeed, when other cultures’ styles are used, it is usually to introduce an element of exoticism to a look. If minority models or designers are used at all, it is often simply to have a token minority member.
Allegations of racism are not only limited to fashion, but also abound in many other creative industries. In September, Dolce & Gabbana faced charges of racism for including earrings in their collection that featured small, dangling African-American heads that many thought resembled a tired “Aunt Mammy” stereotype. In the beginning of November, No Doubt pulled their new video for “Looking Hot” after catching flak for the way Native American culture was used—and some say abused—in it. In such a media landscape, it can be difficult for minority members who want to become part of an artistic community to find their place.
Holmes is particularly disturbed by the way various aspects of Native American cultures are misused in mainstream fashion. “Some of our things are now a trend, like headdresses—I don’t know why people think it’s cool to wear headdresses,” she says. “Headdresses are reserved for highly respected men. Only a man wears a headdress.” She particularly takes issue with how fashion designers’ use of traditional Native American dress is clearly devoid of connection to any real people or culture, which gives the public the false idea that these revered pieces are something that they can wear for fun. “I’ve even heard people call our regalia costumes,” she says. “They’re not costumes. They’re traditions. They exploit our traditions and culture and don’t think twice about it.” Indeed, what does it say about American culture when a girl who dresses in a short tan dress and poorly done face paint can call herself an “Indian” on Halloween and be considered “cute,” but a Native American individual dressed as a white person is essentially unheard of? The fact that items of religious importance to the peoples from whom Europeans wrested this country have been reduced to pretty baubles is indicative of our cultural insensitivity.
Native Max, while the first Native American fashion magazine of its kind, joins a slew of other ethnically focused fashion magazines, from Clutch for African-American women to Latina for Latina women. “It is really important for all ethnicities to have something that features their traditions,” says Holmes. These magazines provide a niche for aspiring artists in these groups, by showing them fashion that does not distill them to hollow stereotypes. Also, by employing only minority members and showcasing only ethnicity-specific work , these magazines can help launch artists who would otherwise have gone unnoticed to fame, according to Holmes. “A lot of Native designers design beautiful things, and they’re not known,” she says.
There’s no denying that such small publications could face trouble competing against huge, mainstream fashion players like Vogue. Holmes thinks that her magazine’s best hope is to focus on its original goals. While Native Max aims to reach a broad audience, Holmes feels that it’s important to continue to feature and employ only Natives in order to achieve her mission. “If we feature just anyone in the magazine, it’ll turn into just any other magazine that’s out there,” she says. “It’s really hard to break into the industry, but we already have a really great audience.”
Holmes, along with other entrepreneurs behind ethnically-focused fashion magazines, remains committed to giving these groups a say in the fashion industry and breaking down the public’s preconceived notions about fashion. “There are stereotypes that the only mainstream fashion should be European, like that’s the only fashion ever,” says Holmes.
The question is, will a greater representation in fashion really help us move toward ethnic equality? Holmes thinks so. “[Native Americans] want to do these different things, but are kind of hindered because they’re Native American,” she says. “Somewhere, a Native individual can become more outspoken and be inspired to go out and do what they want to do. We want everyone to see who we are and what we can do.”